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Time to fly for Purple Heart pilot

Female aviator wants to be a US Marine

Gulf News

LOS ANGELES: Major Mary Hegar’s 12-year-old daughter Yellow wants to be a US Marine - and the former helicopter pilot, who won a Purple Heart after being shot down over Afghanistan, couldn’t be happier.

Indeed, the 36-year-old could even return to a war zone herself, after Thursday’s announcement by Defence Secretary Leon Panetta that ended a ban on US women serving in ground combat.

Now living back in Austin, Texas, and in the process of leaving the full-time military after being injured in the crash in 2009, she admits to missing the action of the battlefield “terribly.”

“I’m an adrenaline junkie. I drive sport bikes and go skydiving and stuff like that. And it’s killing me that my squadron is over there right now without me,” she told AFP.

Of those who argue that women can’t “hack it” in frontline combat, she says bluntly: “I want to know what they say to me - it’s like arguing that the world is flat.”

Hegar’s aircraft was shot down while rescuing three injured soldiers, and she had to engage in combat, returning fire and sustaining shrapnel wounds. She was awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor.

Her injuries meant she had to stop flying, and a ground combat role was not an option, so she decided to quit. “I would love to have transitioned into a ground combat role but those positions weren’t available,” she said.

The mother-of-three described her children’s pride when she went to pick up the coveted military award at a ceremony in California with her husband Brandon, a civilian.

Yellow, their eldest, “was just beaming. I think that’s why she says she wants to be in the military now, she just couldn’t believe it,” said Hegar, one of four servicewomen who filed a lawsuit last year seeking an end to the ban.

“She came to me the other day almost in tears, and said.. somebody, an authority figure, had told her ‘That’s a boy’s job, you can’t do that’,” she told AFP.

Her reply to her daughter: “Hey, why don’t you go back to that person and tell them what your mum did?”

Ushering in a new era for the US military, Panetta said the ground-breaking decision reflected the changed realities of the battlefield, as women soldiers are already fighting in conflicts that lack clear frontlines.

President Barack Obama hailed the move as “historic” and “another step toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals of fairness and equality.”

Hegar, a plain-talking veteran of three tours in Afghanistan, said she and other campaigners were surprised by the speed with which the Pentagon moved, but says the legal battle is not necessarily over.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about what this is going to mean,” she said, cautioning that the lawsuit filed in her name last November, helped by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), will not be dropped immediately.

“Until we see something definitive, in writing, that satisfies the stipulations of the lawsuit, we’re going to proceed,” she said.

From a personal standpoint, she is still considering whether to reverse her decision and rejoin the military.

“I expected this lawsuit to take years,” she said.

“So I haven’t really dealt with that question, as to whether or not it’s too late for me to go back in.”

Hegar’s husband and children had always supported her military career, even though it meant not seeing her as much, she said - but that was the same for families when men were away on the battlefield.

She recalled how, after her first tour in Afghanistan, she asked to stay on for a second. “I volunteered to facilitate someone whose wife was having a baby and he wanted to be there for that.

“Family issues are a fact of life, we cover each other. It’s not about gender, it’s about getting each other’s back, and being part of the military family.”